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In their words: Scholarly Concentration Q&A with Religion and Spirituality co-directors

map shows the location of the religion and spirituality concentration in indianapolis

In 2019, IU School of Medicine launched Scholarly Concentrations. To help students decide if a concentration topic is the right fit, concentration co-directors shared the inside scoop—from why they got involved in the concentration to how a specific topic can help students reach their goals.

Concentration Topic: Religion and Spirituality in Medicine
Concentration Location: Statewide (based in Indianapolis)
Concentration Co-Directors: Alex Lion, DO, and Mona Raed, MD

Introduce yourselves. Who are you and why did you decide to become involved in this Scholarly Concentration topic?

AL: I am a pediatric oncologist at Riley Hospital for Children and my areas of clinical expertise include pediatric neuro-oncology and pediatric cancer predisposition. I became involved in the topic of religion and spirituality in medicine while caring for children struggling with cancer or the fear of cancer. I was inspired by many families whose coping, decision making, and resilience are drawn from their spiritual traditions.

MR: I am a Pediatric Palliative and Hospice Physician at Riley Hospital for Children. I have always had an interest in religion, spirituality as it interfaces with our medical world and how we both care for patients and navigate the complexity for the patient and within ourselves as clinicians. During my Palliative Medicine training, I had the pleasure of navigating complex clinical scenarios, decision making and spiritual dialogue with many families/patients along with a trusted and admired chaplain mentor. In these moments, the ability for families and patients to cope and derive deep resilience and meaning of illness, death and dying from their belief and values has been a source of true inspiration.

Tell us about your experience related to the concentration topic.

AL: Early in my pediatric oncology training, I witnessed families who experienced spiritual distress in the setting of a child’s cancer. In one pivotal moment, a parent told me “it’s not about the cancer. It’s about this feeling that God has abandoned me.” Since that time, I have studied the subject, collaborated with national leaders in the field, and published in major peer-reviewed journals (Pediatrics, Pediatric Blood & Cancer, and JAMA Oncology) on the subject of physicians addressing patient spirituality. I am currently the principal investigator for a research project studying how to train healthcare team members in pediatric hematology-oncology to recognize spiritual distress and work alongside chaplains to support the spiritual needs of patients and families.

MR: The integrated nature of my fellowship training and early attending years enabled me to interface with every discipline of the hospital system on a very deep and meaningful level. Walking into the many patient and family rooms alongside my colleagues as a religious and cultural minority has made me look at my faith, values, and the meaning I derive in a very critical way over the years. It has helped me understand that communication of touch, compassion, honesty, and openness are universal languages in the setting of critical illness no matter the difference in spirituality or background. This has helped me develop a peace about meeting families where they are in their clinical and spiritual journeys. This led to the realization that imposing my beliefs, values, and wants is not the goal but to allow them to serve as a means of compassion for the journey and path these families and children are on.

What are you most excited about in regards to Scholarly Concentrations and your concentration topic?

AL: I am most excited to see how the unique and diverse interests of the students guide their inquiry into this field. Whether in primary care or medical specialty, there is not one area of medicine untouched by spiritual perspective. I am excited to see the ways that spiritual inquiry may further enliven and deepen the careers of medical students. Because the spiritual traditions and medical specialties of these students may differ than mine, I am also excited to learn from them as much as they learn from me.

MR: Observing and hearing what these bright, inquisitive, fresh and young minds are most excited about and interested in throughout the year. I have no doubt I will have much to learn from their inquisition and curiosity! I look forward to the diversity of the group and how we may challenge them to think about themselves, the world, their clinical practice and patients in a different way and how they may truly challenge each other and provoke thought and inspiration. I am also excited to learn from them.

What are a few important or interesting things students should know about this concentration?

This concentration stands apart from some other medical schools by the way it seeks to include individuals from multiple spiritual backgrounds. We believe that there are distinct lessons in health to learn from each tradition and we want to model humble inquiry to the larger society by how we have set ourselves up for diverse discussion in the seminars and how we learn together. Anyone from any spiritual tradition is welcome to join us.

How is this concentration beneficial to a student’s personal and professional goals?

Just as spirituality is important for the resilience of many patients, it may also be very important for the resilience of physicians. In the IU School of Medicine’s eight-fold model of wellness, one of the eight areas of wellness is spiritual wellness. This concentration provides a space for students to not only ask how a patient’s spirituality may contribute to their wellness, but also how a student’s spirituality may contribute to their resilience and to their calling in the profession of medicine.

Some students may have a hard time deciding which concentration to choose. How can a student decide if this topic is the best fit for them?

While there are national competencies in medical education regarding spirituality as an aspect of health, things we hope all medical students will gain exposure to, some students may have a sense of calling to go deeper into knowledge and experience of this. We are hoping to teach, train, and continue to learn with the future leaders in this field. If students are interested but unsure, they may email us and ask to talk more through the decision.

What are the special resources and/or expertise on this concentration’s home campus or statewide?

We are privileged to partner with one of the few centers for spirituality in health research in the country, the Evans Center for Religious and Spiritual Values in Healthcare. The Evans Center regularly convenes researchers in the state of Indiana who focus on spirituality and health, with collaborators from other major institutions. Researchers at the Evans Center publish regularly and have a track record of obtaining NIH grants as well as IU Health Values grants to carry out scholarly work in this field.

If applicable, what is the academic and social culture like on the home campus?

In general, we have seen an open environment in which students and staff physicians are ready to talk about spirituality in the healthcare setting. There is a sense that many have felt this is important but have not known how to broach the subject before. This is an exciting time to have such a safe space to ask questions and learn.  

You provided some examples of potential projects for this concentration. Can you provide some more details for what one or two different projects could look like?

In regards to interprofessional spiritual care in pediatric hematology-oncology, pilot work will be completed by the time the first cohort of students are ready for their scholarly project. There are at least two projects that could come after this pilot work. The first would be a focus group qualitative research project, convening parents and adolescents from the Riley patient parent advisory group, to ask how they would want the healthcare team to ask about spiritual needs. The second would be the development of an interprofessional standard of work for addressing spiritual needs and description of this process for pediatric hematology-oncology.

The views expressed in this content represent the perspective and opinions of the author and may or may not represent the position of Indiana University School of Medicine.
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IU School of Medicine

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